The Kid (Charles Chaplin, 1921): USA

Reviewed by Lauren Sousa.  Viewed on Criterion VOD via Hulu Plus.

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature, The Kid, was not my introduction to silent films, but if I had a kid of my own to corrupt, I think it would be a lovely one.

Running just six reels when it was initially released in 1921, and re-edited by Chaplin himself in 1971, the version of The Kid most often available today is just 53 minutes long, yet it tells a complete, delightful story sure to hook its viewers on Chaplin, silent comedy, or silent melodrama.

One of the first films to combine both slapstick and emotion, The Kid is the story of a child (Jackie Coogan) abandoned by his unwed mother (Edna Purviance) who accidentally ends up in a poor part of town and in the care of Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, who cares for the child as best he can within his limited means as a glazier. The mother, meanwhile, becomes a successful actress obsessed with charity, and there are no surprises from here on out, except the slapstick, which contains none of the classic, utterly perfect bits that are hallmarks of his later work, but is nonetheless well-constructed and in my biased opinion very funny.

The comedy also serves the drama very well and lightens the heavier situations in the last act. The new edit is superb, and only a dream sequence could be considered out of place. Indeed, it slows down the momentum for nearly a reel, but I, personally, would not remove it. It can be read as heightening the emotions of the film, but it also demonstrates silent fantasy in a way that can be enlightening to a native of sound film.

The new soundtrack was written by Chaplin along with the new edit, and it is in keeping with the film’s pace and mood.

This review would be incomplete if I did not mention as well the excellence of the sets, as is typical of Chaplin: the poor tramp’s apartment (and the business within it) is so perfectly designed, not only for humor and pathos but to give a real sense, so much more than dialog or actions within the film’s brief span of time, of precisely who these characters are and how they live their lives every day.

The Kid is not a masterpiece of the magnitude Chaplin would later achieve, but it is a very good film, a step on the way that he took, and a step you should take, too.

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